My Summer at American Embassy Moscow

October 1, 1998

Jennifer Szoke '98

[see below for a brief biography of Jennifer and her e-mail address]

Introduction

I am a Russian and History double-major contemplating entering such fields as journalism, academia, writing and diplomacy, and working at the American Embassy in Moscow was an almost ideal way to have spent the summer. My three months there revealed to me the mechanics of diplomacy from the minutest, most mundane details of scheduling meetings with Russian counterparts to more abstract, big-picture concepts as Russian-American cooperation in international legal questions. I was assigned important writing and reporting responsibilities and was trusted with sensitive information, and I returned to the United States with a sense of accomplishment.

 

What I Did

I was assigned to work in the Political Section of the Embassy, and within that section, I specialized in Russian External Relations. There were about 5 diplomats with whom I worked closely, and as a team we reported on visits of foreign dignitaries to Russia, and monitored developments between Russia and other countries and international organizations. Our observations were sent to Washington via telegram. I personally reported on the visits of the presidents of Angola and Argentina to Russia, on Russian Foreign Ministry reactions to certain U.S. positions on international issues, and on my impressions of youth life in Russia. All of this work brought me into contact with Russian Foreign Ministry officials and other countries’ diplomats to Russia, and afforded me the opportunity to use the Russian language knowledge I had acquired here at Dartmouth but never got the chance to apply.

Writing telegrams is just like writing a newspaper article: you read whatever material is available (media reports, biographical information about the participants, old telegrams) regarding the event you’re interested in, then you interview different officials for a ‘readout’ (including Foreign Ministry officials and officials from other Embassies), talk with people on the street if the event is of public interest, and finally you write a draft report of your findings. This was always a challenging exercise for me because most interviews were to be conducted in Russian and I was not all that confident about my language abilities. I prepared for each interview by learning whatever new, relevant vocabulary I could find in the Russian press, and composing questions and comments beforehand. I usually went into an interview feeling at least semi-confident about communicating about the subject, but thankfully I also found my interviewees surprisingly obliging if I asked them to repeat a sentence I didn’t quite catch or re-explain something a bit more clearly.

 

Embassy interns really do perform meaningful work that regular, seasoned diplomats would normally do. A task that was regularly assigned to me was delivering something called a demarche, which is essentially a message from Washington to the host government, either explaining a U.S. policy position, asking the host government for support, or urging the host government to change its position or refrain from doing something. Delivering a demarche involves taking information provided by the State Department in Washington D.C., composing a short paper, and, in theory anyway, presenting it to a Foreign Ministry Official, getting the host government’s reaction, and reporting your findings back to Washington. About half of the time it proves impossible to schedule a timely appointment, so the whole exercise is reduced to faxing your paper to someone at the Foreign Ministry. In this case, the opportunity to get out of the office is unfortunately lost. And, even more, about half the time no response whatsoever is given and your so-called demarche is sort of a non-event . All of this is within the typical, normal operations of an embassy, and these mild disappointments I encountered were just as likely to be suffered by an authentic diplomat. But whenever the logistics work out, my forays into the hallways of the behemoth Stalin-Gothic Foreign Ministry Building and the more modest foreign embassies always felt like a small adventure and I relished these times to talk with people outside of the Embassy.

I also learned that a diplomat bears the constant obligation to represent his country in any situation, at any hour of the day, to any number of people who wish to see him. As something of a semi-diplomat, I found myself with a number of ‘representational’ duties, including attending concerts on behalf of the Ambassador (who can go to only a fraction of the hundreds of events to which he is invited), going to other embassies’ national day celebrations, and acting as a host during events sponsored by our embassy. Some colleagues found these duties tedious, perhaps because they take up so much time after office hours, but I usually enjoyed them.

 

 

The State Department, Embassies in General, and Colleagues

Embassies essentially operate as foreign offices of the U.S. State Department, which, along with institutions like the Pentagon and the National Security Council, is just one element of our government’s international affairs apparatus. I learned that, as part of the State Department and more broadly of the U.S. Government, an Embassy is subject to pockets of excess bureaucracy and the cult of paper-producing. This can be intimidating to outsiders who are not used to the seemingly countless rules and regulations which govern all operations, which must be strictly adhered to, and which seem to triple the amount of time and effort it takes to accomplish things. I learned to accept these nuisances as a necessary evil, the established method of ensuring accountability in a tangled and always changing network of people, policies and places.

I also found out that bureaucratic obstacles are much greater in Moscow than in almost all other Embassies simply because it is one of our largest, and because in Moscow the security of personnel and especially of information is considered to be at higher than usual risk. For these reasons requirements for the paperwork one has to file, the consultations and clearances one must obtain from colleagues, and the document formats and protocols one must follow are particularly strict and almost never neglected or relaxed. My supervisors were careful to make sure I understood that difficulties such as these were peculiar to Embassy Moscow and the handful of other embassies with high security concerns, and were in no way typical of Embassies taken as a whole. On the other hand, I think that those security concerns, history, current events and the fascinating atmosphere in Moscow cannot be separated from each other, and for me the cultural and learning opportunities afforded by this great and eventful city were far more rewarding than its difficulties were annoying. Perhaps I would not feel that way had something serious occurred during my stay. In the end however, I think I gained in some way from having to confront some of the problems particular to this location.

I encourage any student wishing to better understand foreign policy and diplomacy to apply for a State Department internship. (There are opportunities to work both in Washington D.C. and in a foreign post. If you have the time and inclination, working in both capacities can give you the fullest idea of what life and work as a Foreign Service Officer is like, and working first in Washington will give you an advantage over other candidates if you later apply for an overseas position.) However, if abroad, interns should not necessarily expect to have great interaction with people beyond the Embassy community. First, the work day is long and demanding, leaving you little free time. Second, almost all of your colleagues will be American. And finally, depending on where you work, you may actually be discouraged from making friends from the country you’re in. Again, I stress that this last obstacle varies rtemendouly by location. In my experience, interns have to be assertive when it comes to making sure they are granted some flexibility in work hours. Although interns do substantive work, they are not actual employees and really should not be required to spend all day in the office. In fact, the best diplomats are those who spend as much time as possible outside of the office. It may be up to the individual intern to make sure his supervisor realizes this and adjusts assignments accordingly.

Finally, interns are usually taken for the summer only. This is because many foreign service officers take their vacations during the summer, leaving their respective embassies shorthanded and hungry for more help. If, however, you are offered a summer position and you are unable to accept it, it is possible to shift your assignment to another time of year if you get a hold of the internship coordinators in time.

 

How the Experience was Meaningful

There are two distinct universes to consider when I try to convey how these 12 weeks affected me: first, there is the challenging, fascinating work inside the American Embassy, and second, the experience of being in the challenging, fascinating city of Moscow. It quickly became clear to me that I was living a double existence. Life inside the Embassy is conscientiously insulated and far, far removed from the daily realities confronting inhabitants of the world immediately beyond the compound’s guarded gates. Inside the Embassy, you are surrounded by Americans, with American expectations of material comfort, complying with American conventions of public deportment and what work in an office should be like. Beyond the compound, there is the chaotic and gritty city of Moscow, where it would be naive to expect American customs of public courtesy, hygiene and personal space, and where, in my experience at least, every simple, daily task was complicated by unnecessary and even meaningless obstacles.

From the work and Embassy side of this universe, I am sure that there is no better way for a student to gain an understanding of professional diplomacy. As a result of this internship, I have gained a solid idea of how international affairs are conducted at the bureaucratic level, and of just what ingredients comprise policy-making. However, I have also witnessed concrete examples demonstrating the unpredictability and indeterminacy of foreign policy and international relations. Many observers -- both critics and defenders -- assume that the U.S. has more control over international affairs and that it operates somehow behind the scenes, inexplicably pulling all of the strings. Certainly, the U.S. has great influence, but control is a different question. For example, other governments of course pay attention and often react to American positions and domestic developments, but frequently those reactions are not what the U.S. would either have expected or desired. Certainly the U.S. government has many powerful tools at its disposal, and I’m sure there are American influences out there that select few people know about, but there is still no way that the American government can have the pervasive control throughout the world that some attribute to it.

The non-work universe of this experience has left me with indelible ideas and impressions of what life is like in Moscow today and has shown me first-hand the difficulties Russia is trudging through. It was unfortunate, from my perspective, that I was housed for most of my stay in very American style arrangements: I was hoping to be more exposed to Russian ways of living. (Russians I met thought this was a childish, naive, and even patronizing notion, and would have jumped at the chance to oblige me by trading places.) Sometimes it felt as though I was living in Poughkeepsie or maybe suburban Connecticut, but I spent as little time as possible in my quarters. I wandered many hours through the different neighborhoods of the city, trying to pay special attention to the mundane rituals of everyday life, conscious of the fact that this city might be much different on my next visit (whenever that might be). Up until this summer, I had been studying Russia and the Soviet experience second-hand, though the filter of textbooks, newspapers, literature, and professors’ lectures. Now I have direct experience of part of this and a far richer context in which to place my academic work. Yet although I sought to understand and experience myself as much as possible the trials Russians face all of the time (from shopping for groceries, to riding the metro and interacting with all kinds of bureaucracies) I still know that I was more of a privileged spectator than a participant.

This summer is proving to have been an important period for the future of Russia. Every day even American newspapers report some interesting occurrence; some analysts say that the dissatisfaction Russians have quiescently endured for decades is now manifesting itself in concrete, potentially revolutionary ways. It seems that few people can venture a guess as to what will happen a month or a year from now, but the strange events that I was witness to and the policy reversals, personnel changes, disappointed expectations and the incessant unreliability of important institutions collectively represent another remarkable twist in Russia’s epic struggle to remake itself. As for me, I will continue to follow Russia’s affairs and, hopefully, will return there for a time, either as an academic or journalist.

______________________________

Jennifer Szoke '98 is studying History and Russian, and will graduate in June. She plans to take the Foreign Service Exam in the spring, and is considering joining the Foreign Service. She is also interested in journalism, teaching, and academia, and after working a few years after graduation, she will probably go to graduate school for one of these fields. In the meantime, she will seek a position at a newspaper or magazine, at a research institute, or at a non-profit organization, but will hopefully be accepted by the Teach for America program, to work in an under-funded public school for two years. In her final year at Dartmouth, Jennifer is writing an honors thesis in the Russian Department, on the topic 'Russian Classical Literature during the Soviet Years.'

She may be contacted via e-mail to Jennifer.R.Szoke@Dartmouth.EDU

 

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